Professor Joeckel on why his contract, teachings on racial justice are ‘under review’

An incident at Palm Beach Atlantic University is the latest salvo in an increasingly high-stakes conflict over teaching about race in higher education.

Professor Samuel Joeckel has worked for Palm Beach Atlantic University for more than 20 years. Headshot courtesy of PBAU website, photo by Nick Juhasz courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(RNS) — I get a lot of notifications on social media, but this one was different. A professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBAU), Samuel Joeckel, had tagged me in an Instagram post about an incident with his administration after class one day. It became the latest salvo in an increasingly intense and high-stakes conflict over teaching about race in higher education.

PBAU brands itself as a conservative Christian college where “faith and freedom matter.” But in response to one parental complaint, this university is examining syllabi mid-semester for signs of racial “indoctrination.” Such actions are becoming more commonplace in educational settings.

The school is in Florida where Governor Ron DeSantis recently made national headlines for objecting to the proposed Advanced Placement African American Studies framework, which he said “lack(ed) educational value.”

The actions of university officials at PBAU also echo the stance of Grove City College, another conservative higher education institution in Western Pennsylvania. The board of trustees at Grove City officially adopted and approved a report that analyzed “mission drift” at the school for promoting what they labeled Critical Race Theory.

Below is an interview with Professor Joeckel on his experience of being scrutinized for teaching a unit on racial justice. It has been edited for length and clarity.

You recently posted on Instagram about an encounter with your administration about teaching racial justice. What happened after your class that day, and what was your immediate response? 

On Feb. 15, I concluded a class and walked out of the classroom to find the provost, Chelly Templeton, and the dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Robert Lloyd, waiting for me.

They asked to speak with me privately.

We stepped back into the classroom. The dean had an envelope in his hand and gave it to me. He said the letter inside was to notify me that my contract was being delayed, pending a review of the material I use in my racial justice unit.

I asked him what the concern was. He said the concern was that I was “indoctrinating students.”

Dean Lloyd said the president of the university, Debra Schwinn, received an angry phone call from a parent of a student. The parent insisted I was “indoctrinating” their child because of the content I had recently taught on racial justice.

In the 12 years I have been teaching a racial justice unit, no PBAU administrator had ever voiced any concern about my unit. This was the first time.

So, the first time was also the time when I was told my contract may not be renewed. I was told I would be notified on or before March 15 if the contract would be renewed. 

All of this came out of nowhere. I had no idea this was coming. I felt completely disrespected.

Keep in mind I have taught at this university for over 20 years. The administration at the highest level showed absolutely no confidence in me. They seemed to value the complaint of one parent over the solid record of teaching I have accumulated over 20 years.

Why did you decide to go public with what happened to you?

One of the university’s core values is accountability. I went public with this because I felt it was time for the university itself to assume some accountability.

In response to my public post, a number of comments from PBAU people — current and former students, former faculty and staff — said in one variation or another, “Disappointing, but not surprised.”

It is time for PBAU to acknowledge that many people are not surprised and to ask, “Why are they not surprised?”

What are we doing wrong? I cannot and will not speak for people who, now and in the past, have experienced racial injustice at PBAU. I will only speak from my perspective. 

A few years ago, it seemed like we were heading in the right direction when the relatively new president formed a committee on campus called The Council for Intercultural Relations. The president seemed to be concerned about racial injustice.

I was a member of this committee and was assigned to the curriculum sub-committee. During that following semester, the committee met only a few times. In the end, the curriculum committee did absolutely nothing. It was a complete waste of time.

So PBAU needs to be held accountable. Obviously, what they are doing hurts me, but even more destructively, what they are doing to me shows they are, at the very least, predisposed to turn a deaf ear to racial injustice.

They need to read and reflect on what MLK wrote, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

It won’t be pretty, it won’t be easy, but PBAU needs to expose its boil so injustice can be exposed. Only when that happens can the university heal.

What has been the public response? 

The public response has been overwhelming. I am encouraged so much by all the current and former students who have told me they stand by me.

Former students throughout the country have not only given me moral support but have used their influence to arrange for interviews with local and national media to draw attention to this injustice.

A student has also started a petition to mobilize support for me and, more significantly, for educational integrity.

And just on a personal level, I have now reconnected with people I have not talked to in five, 10 and even 20 years. 

What do you teach at PBAU, and how long have you been teaching there? 

I have been teaching at PBAU for over 20 years and have taught 18 different courses: composition courses; upper-level English courses; a number of different honors courses; and humanities courses. I also led the university’s London Semester on two separate occasions and developed courses specifically that focused on London museums, literary sites and history.

Do you mind sharing a little about the racial justice unit you taught? 

The main purpose of my unit on racial justice is for students to critically reflect on moments in history, texts and data that have shaped and continue to shape discussions of race and racism in the United States. Students are not told what to think about these materials; they come to their own conclusions.

I taught about racial justice for three days as part of my composition class. I lectured for two days, including a discussion of the introduction from your book, “The Color of Compromise.” Then on the third day, I helped students as they began writing an essay in class about racial justice.

What does the administration hope to achieve with these kinds of reviews in your opinion? 

While I cannot say for certain what the administration hopes to achieve, it seems they are conforming to a toxic political culture.

This culture believes talking about contemporary racism will always lead to indoctrination. This culture does not want to have those uncomfortable, yet necessary, conversations that have nothing to do with indoctrination.

Instead, these conversations have everything to do with facing reality, being compassionate, cultivating the moral imagination to see things from other perspectives and, if you are a Christian, living out the gospel. 

Is your job at risk? Have you thought about what you’ll do if the administration pushes for your dismissal? 

I think I may very well be fired. At PBAU, if the university does not renew your contract, they do so either because they are making budget cuts or they are firing you. If I am fired, I will continue to do what I can to make PBAU accountable. Of course, I also need to think about me and my family, so I plan to hire a lawyer. 

What’s the best outcome of this situation from your perspective? 

The best outcome for me personally would be for the university to renew my contract. But beyond me, the best outcome would be for the university to expose that metaphorical boil I mentioned earlier.

The university should confess, repent, assume accountability. Then reconciliation will occur.

The university also needs to honor academic freedom. Right now, I imagine every PBAU professor is wondering if they might get called out for something they teach. If it can happen to a professor who has been here for over 20 years, it can happen to anyone. 

How can we support you at this time? 

You can support me by getting the word out — to help me make PBAU accountable.

PBAU does not want to talk about race and racism unless they are framed a certain way: a certain comfortable, low-stakes way. Christian universities should not be afraid to have more substantive, even uncomfortable, conversations about racism.

But as hard as these conversations are, everyone involved should not be afraid to make mistakes. As a white man teaching racial justice, I admit I have made mistakes. But I never want my mistakes to end the conversation.

Inside and outside the university classroom, let’s learn from our mistakes, let’s talk with each other, let’s learn from each other. 

(Jemar Tisby, a professor of history at Simmons College of Kentucky, is the author of the books “The Color of Compromise” and “How to Fight Racism.” He writes frequently at The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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